River City Ransom (NES)

Dat pixelated azz, tho!

Kunio is the most important video game character that most people outside Japan have never heard of. He was created by game designer Yoshihisa Kishimoto to star in Technōs Japan’s 1986 arcade game Nekketsu Kōha Kunio-kun (“Hot-Blooded Tough Guy Kunio”) and has since gone on to appear in nearly fifty assorted sequels and remakes, collectively comprising the Kunio-kun series. Kun is an informal Japanese honorific usually applied to young men and it definitely suits Kunio, a teenage tough guy who protects Nekketsu High School from rival gangs with his legendary street brawling skills. Supposedly, Kunio was inspired by Kishimoto himself, who states in interviews that he went through a bit of a juvenile delinquent phase following a bad breakup in high school when was getting into schoolyard brawls daily.

Kunio’s debut outing, known outside Japan as Renegade, was a huge deal and earned itself a place in the pantheon of most influential games of all time. It was the first arcade beat-’em-up game to add eight-directional multi-plane movement to the mix. With fighters no longer limited to walking left or right, a host of new combat tactics opened up. For example, players could attempt to maneuver their fighters so as to attack the enemy’s flanks or rear. Renegade’s core gameplay served as the basis for Kishimoto’s follow-up, Double Dragon, which proved even more popular worldwide and inspired hundreds of imitators until 2D beat-’em-ups in general finally fell out of mainstream favor around the late 1990s.

But wait, aren’t I supposed to be reviewing River City Ransom here? What’s with all this Kunio crap? Well, as it happens, River City Ransom is a Kunio-kun game! Specifically, the third one: Dauntaun Nekketsu Monogatari (“Downtown Hot-Blooded Story”) from 1989. Since Japanese high school students in their characteristic uniforms wouldn’t connect as much with Western audiences, Kunio became an American high schooler named Alex and his archrival and occasional ally Riki became Ryan. The uniforms were replaced by jeans and t-shirts and this, combined with the black pompadour style haircuts on many of the characters, made them look more than a little like stereotypical 1950s greasers. It’s an interesting choice and gives River City Ransom a period piece feel that the original version lacks.

All other Kunio games released outside Japan during the 8-bit era, like Super Dodge Ball and Crash ‘n’ the Boys: Street Challenge, received similar changes. In fact, the characteristic Kunio-kun art style with its squat, big-headed characters is the only overt hint that these games are related at all.

In River City Ransom, players control Alex and Ryan as they roam across River City fighting off countless rival gang members on a mission to rescue Ryan’s kidnapped girlfriend Cyndi from a mysterious villain called Slick. Along the way, they’ll need to collect money from fallen foes in order to power themselves up by purchasing equipment, food, and other upgrades at the local malls.

That’s right: This is a beat-’em-up with those newfangled RPG elements that were worming their way into so many Japanese console games at the time. Items from the shops will enhance your strength, agility, stamina, and seven additional stats. Buying books can also teach you all new combat moves that will greatly enhance your standard punches and kicks.

Even on the harder of the game’s two difficulty settings, though, you won’t really need to worry about fully upgrading your character in order to complete the game. I did it anyway because I’m weird that way, but even just purchasing the rapid fire kick upgrade and the game’s best pair of boots will allow you to make mincemeat of the toughest bosses. I’ll come back to this later.

The gameplay fundamentals are handled well. Controls are tight and the punching and kicking feels just as good as it does in Double Dragon. A couple indoor sections have light platforming elements where you need to jump up on crates or ledges and these can be a little awkward. Thankfully, you’re not expected to jump over pits or other deadly hazards, so this doesn’t drag down the experience as a whole. A nice touch is how the specific gang members you’ll encounter on each screen are randomized. Since some gangs are tougher than others, this helps to keep things interesting on multiple trips through the same section of the city. There’s even an in-game help menu that explains how the game functions, which is really strange to see in a console game of this vintage.

River City Ransom’s graphics aren’t spectacular in the least. In fact, they’re pretty plain. Characters animate well, but that’s about the best you can say for the visuals on a purely technical level. One thing that this doesn’t take into account, though, is the charm factor. The cutesy characters are really endearing and the bug-eyed, slack-jawed looks on defeated enemies’ faces as you send then flying never get old. Neither do the wacky quotes they recite as they’re knocked out. “Is this fun yet?” and the classic “BARF!” are some of my favorites. The character designs themselves are pretty restrained for the genre. Your heroes and all of their opposition are supposed to be high schoolers and that’s exactly what they look like. Don’t go in expecting any of the wild enemy designs from other brawlers like Final Fight, where everyone tends to look like sideshow performers that just got out of a rave. The music is energetic and catchy with a bit of a rockabilly flair and doesn’t wear out its welcome too quickly, which is good because there’s not a lot of it. If you enjoyed the music in the NES port of Double Dragon, you’ll be pleased with the tunes here.

So the game has a sterling pedigree, solid brawling action, RPG-like depth, and tons of charm. What’s not to like? Well, there are two significant flaws that hold River City Ransom back for me and prevent it from realizing its potential as a great game: A tiny game world and an overall lack of challenge.

For a game that offers ten different stats for your character, tons of shops and items, and an extensive password system, I would expect it to also have a bigger world with more to see and do in it than your typical beat-‘em-up, but it turns out that River City is one miniscule municipality. What you get in the way of a game world is a few dozen screens laid-out in a mostly straight line. There are a couple of small cul-de-sacs off the main path where you’ll encounter enemies and bosses, but they’re dead ends. The potential for branching paths and richer open world gameplay was built into the design but was not capitalized upon by the designers and the game is easily beaten in under an hour. At least you won’t get lost, I suppose.

The lack of challenge comes from the way enemy encounters are programmed. For starters, you’ll only ever face off against a maximum of two enemies at once. While this does naturally help performance by minimizing slowdown and sprite flicker, beat-‘em-up veterans know that coping with one or two enemies at a time in these sorts of games is child’s play. Things get tricky (and interesting) when you’re fending off a whole mob of foes and that will never happen here. Adding a second player into the mix makes things even tamer, since the enemy count isn’t boosted to compensate.

If the enemies were tough to defeat, this still might be a workable system. Regrettably, though, this is where River City Ransom’s truly terrible enemy AI programming lets the game down even further. Enemies, even bosses, are quite content to walk or run straight into your attacks and once you knock a foe down the first time, you can simply stand over them and continuously mash the attack buttons as they attempt to regain their footing, insuring that they’ll never succeed. Additionally, many sections of the game have walls or fences in the background that Alex and Ryan can jump up onto and this simple maneuver is enough to literally stop enemies in their tracks. They’ll never attempt follow you up there and continue the fight but you can assault them from the high ground with impunity. I’m not going to say that every game ever made has to be super hardcore and tough as nails but the opposition you’ll encounter in River City Ransom is so feeble and dim that it almost doesn’t seem sporting. It certainly stops being very exciting once you’ve grasped the glaring weaknesses in the patterns.

River City Ransom is a very likable game. I’d even call it good. However, it’s the kind of good that’s so close to great that it just irks all the more. The potential was there for this to be an all-time classic and one of the top titles for the console, but the short quest and cramped game world thoroughly undermine the clever RPG elements and the useless enemy AI does the same for the beat-‘em-up action. The humor and style are not to be missed, though, and every NES enthusiast should play through this one at least one just to spend a few hours savoring its exuberant silliness.

In its own way, River City Ransom was almost as influential as its progenitor Renegade. Every beat-‘em-up game since that has experimented with adding in statistics, character progression, and other RPG bits owes it a major debt and titles like Odin Sphere, Dragon’s Crown, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game all qualify as direct descendants. There were even several sequels, most recently River City: Tokyo Rumble in 2013 and River City Ransom: Underground in 2017. Technōs itself may be no more but Kunio and friends fight on.

Is this fun yet? Hell, yes.

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Seiken Densetsu 3 (Super Famicom)

I finished, but I’ve only just begun!

It’s tough to know where to start with a game as legendary as this one. Released in 1995, Seiken Densetsu 3 is developer/publisher Square’s follow-up to their hit 1993 action RPG Secret of Mana. It’s also the first of the Seiken Densetsu (“Legend of the Sacred Sword”) series to never leave Japan. By 1995, the rise of next generation consoles like the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn led to Square deciding that investing the necessary time and money required to translate and localize a massive, text-heavy Super Famicom game like SD3 would be a bit of a fool’s errand. While this may have made good business sense at the time, it was a minor tragedy for English-speaking RPG fans and cemented SD3’s reputation as perhaps the most lamented of the great “lost” 16-bit games. Until 2000, that is, when the first version of the unofficial English fan translation hit the Internet. Does it live up to all the hype? Several times over!

I played SD3 on a reproduction cartridge containing the English version of the game ROM. The label on my copy bears the somewhat misleading title Secret of Mana 2. Many gamers have fond memories of Secret of Mana/Seiken Densetsu 2, but the first game in the series for the Game Boy, released in North America under the title Final Fantasy Adventure in order to piggyback on Square’s most popular franchise, is often unjustly forgotten these days. You can bet I’ll be showcasing Final Fantasy Adventure someday.

Like its predecessors, SD3 is an action RPG with a very distinctive art style that’s cute, colorful, and extremely lush. In fact, you could easily make a strong case for SD3 being the single best looking game ever released for the console. Sprints are sumptuously detailed and sport tons of smooth animation. Even the lowliest generic NPC townspeople in this game show off more visual detail and smoother walk cycles than the main protagonists in most 16-bit RPGs. Many of the backgrounds are positively jaw-dropping and could even be described as painterly. This music is almost as superb as the visuals. While I enjoyed the compositions in Secret of Mana a little more overall, the tunes here are very catchy indeed and the production quality is top notch. Like Square’s other soundtracks from this period, SD3’s is about as close to CD quality audio as it’s possible to get on the Super Famicom. It’s also quite extensive, with over fifty tracks.

This is all probably to be expected, though. Secret of Mana was also noted as one of the most gorgeous console games to date upon its release. Where SD3 really sets itself apart from the rest of the series is in its innovative story structure. The game has six unique protagonists to choose from, each with their own exclusive story elements to experience. There’s Angela the sorceres, Carlie the cleric, Duran the swordsman, Hawk the thief, Lise the amazon, and Kevin the werewolf.

The first thing you’ll do when starting a new playthrough is to select your main character. After that, you’ll pick two of the remaining five heroes to serve as support characters for your lead. This means that you can only ever have three of the six playable characters in your party during any single playthrough. Over the course of the game, you’ll get to see the entire storyline for your chosen lead, an abbreviated “Cliffs Notes” version for each of the two sidekicks, and the three characters you don’t pick at all will only appear in brief walk-on cameo roles as NPCs.

Now, before you get too excited, this isn’t really like having six RPGs in one. It’s more like one and a half. No matter which characters you pick, the overarching plot and quest structure will always be essentially the same. You’ll mostly go to the same places and fight the same monsters and the unique elements of each character’s storyline tend to be concentrated at the very beginning and very end of the quest. Still, it’s really cool to see the same events play out from multiple perspectives and to get more background and dialog for each individual hero. Your choice of main character also determines which of the game’s three villains will emerge as the primary antagonist.

Thankfully, it doesn’t seem like there’s any way to sabotage yourself by choosing a poor character or combination of characters. The designers did a great job of making sure that all the heroes are strong enough to hold their own and the game never gets so difficult that an optimized party or single strategy is necessary to continue. I went with the scientifically proven method of picking whoever I thought looked the coolest. I ended up with Angela, Hawk, and Lise and I did just great. Very smart design on Square’s part.

As if the multiple protagonists angle somehow wasn’t enough to make SD3 one of the most replayable RPGs ever made, there’s also a branching character class system. Any time after reaching level 18, a character can switch from their default class to either a “light” or “dark” class, each with slightly different abilities. For example, Lise the Amazon can pick the light option and become a Valkyrie or choose dark and become a Rune Maiden. Characters can repeat this process at level 38, so if Lise chose to become a Valkyrie, she can pick the light option again to become a Vanadis (light-light) or the dark option to become a Star Lancer (light-dark). There are thus a total of six additional classes per character, representing light, dark, light-light, light-dark, dark-dark, and dark-light. Once you make your choices, there’s no going back, so you would actually need to play through the game four times with a single character if you wanted to experience all six of that character’s class options. That seems a bit excessive to me, but the option’s there if you really want it.

It should be understood that class changing will never drastically alter a character’s role in the party. Using Lise as an example again, she’ll always have the same primary function no matter which classes you choose: She’s a robust “tank” style character that vanquishes foes with her spear attacks. Going down the light path will grant her “buff” spells that increase your party’s stats in combat while the dark path offers “debuff” spells that decrease enemy stats. Ultimately, though, she still remains a fighter type character. Similarly, no class change will ever make Angela the mage into a viable hand-to-hand combatant, but you can tweak her spell selection somewhat. This means that there’s really no way to ruin a character by picking a “bad” class, since the class changes only enhance an already competent character’s core strengths. They never undermine those strengths. Again, this is very clever design.

The main story of Seiken Densetsu 3 involves a fantasy world where the power of magic (mana) has begun to wane. Only the Mana Sword, a legendary weapon used by a goddess to create the world, can possibly reverse this process but it’s sealed away by the power of eight mana stones, each containing the essence of an evil god-beast vanquished by the goddess in primordial times. Three factions of villains send their respective nations to war against their neighbors in an effort to seize all the mana stones, break the seal, and claim the godlike power conferred by the Mana Sword for themselves. To stop them and restore peace, your heroes band together and set out to find the holy sword first. Each hero also has their own individual motives for joining the quest, including getting revenge for a fallen comrade, rescuing a kidnapped relative, and so on. It’s not the most unique premise for an RPG (every Seiken Densetsu game revolves around conflict over the titular sword, after all) but it does a serviceable job of pushing your party to every corner of the game’s diverse and charming world over the course of around 25 hours or so.

I’m very much pleased to report that SD3’s gameplay improves on Secret of Mana’s in virtually every way. Secret of Mana is a very beloved title among 16-bit RPG fans, even a bit of a sacred cow, but I’ve always had major issues with its gameplay. Hit detection felt highly inconsistent, the lengthy charge time on weapon attacks slowed the pace of melee combat to a crawl, and the optimal fighting strategy was usually just to cast the same attack spell over and over again in rapid succession.

Well, SD3’s hit detection has been honed, so say goodbye to well-aimed attacks that whiff for no apparent reason. The weapon charge bar has been replaced by a tech meter that builds as you land blows and filling it up allows you to release more powerful attacks without slowing down combat as a whole. Most importantly, the magic system has been tweaked with balance in mind and you can no longer abuse the trick of repeatedly opening the menu and tossing out an endless stream of spells before your helpless enemy can even react. The end result of all this is that combat in SD3 flows much smoother and feels much more engaging and all-around satisfying. It’s a real joy to beat up on fluffy little rabites and ducks in army helmets this time around. They even improved the pathfinding abilities of computer-controlled party members so that they get stuck on the scenery less often, although this will still happen on occasion.

Multiplayer gameplay also makes a return. I didn’t get a chance to try it out myself, but it seems safe to say that the faster weapon combat and more balanced magic would make for an improved experience.

Is Seiken Densetsu 3 a perfect game? Not quite. I already mentioned that the story a bit on the basic side, despite the promising addition of multiple viewpoints. Not every gamer has a problem with cliche JRPG plots, characters, and dialog. For some, an abundance of familiar tropes might even be desirable; a kind of “gaming comfort food.” If this is you, you’ll adore SD3’s simplistic narrative, in which one-dimensional cackling villains just can’t wait to reveal their “true forms” and mortally wounded characters exclaim things like “Goodbye, cruel world!” If you don’t prefer your RPGs lightweight and corny, though, just be aware going in that this one isn’t packed with thought-provoking concepts and big emotional payoffs.

I also wish that the class changing system could have been made available to the player earlier on in the game. Eighteen levels is a long chunk of time to be stuck in each character’s relatively boring starter class. After the first class change, there’s an even lengthier twenty level gap until the next. By the time you’re finally able to unlock each character’s final, coolest class at level 38, you’ll find that the game is almost over! My party was level 47 when I defeated the final boss and I didn’t even feel like I needed to be that strong. My take is that offering class changes at levels 10 and 30 instead would have improved both the early and late game experience significantly.

Seiken Densetsu 3 is still one spectacular action RPG, however, and a drastic improvement on Secret of Mana in virtually every way. It’s a huge title with so much going on that I didn’t even get around to mentioning some of the major new innovations, like the dynamic day/night cycle that affects enemy encounters and Kevin the werewolf’s transformations. If you liked SoM, you’ll love SD3. If you loved SoM, SD3 will likely secure a place near the top of your personal “best games of all time” list. It plays like a dream, represents peak audiovisual achievement within the 16-bit console generation, and will have you wanting to play through it all over again before you’ve even finished your first go-around.

I just feel sorry for all those sweet little rabites.

Willow (NES)

Not bad, except for that 8-bit Kevin Pollack. *shudder*

Looking back on the NES library, it’s kind of remarkable how few games really attempted to copy the formula of Nintendo’s 1986’s smash hit The Legend of Zelda. There were no shortage of games riding Super Mario’s platforming coattails but overhead fantasy action-RPG titles never took the console as a whole by storm. SNK’s brilliant 1990 release Crystalis is probably the system’s best-known Zelda protégé and FCI’s 1986 port of Hydlide is sometimes considered to be a “Zelda clone,” but this assessment is very much in error, as Hydlide was originally a 1984 release for Japanese computers and likely a Zelda inspiration itself.

One company that did take up the challenge was Capcom, who unleased their NES version of Willow into the world in 1989. Capcom actually released two games based on Ron Howard and George Lucas’ cinematic collaboration, the other being an arcade exclusive action game that played like a more colorful iteration of their Ghosts ‘n Goblins series. I remember that this NES release was pretty well hyped over the course of several issues of Nintendo Power magazine at the time, but I’d never actually played it before this week. It was definitely a pleasant experience and I now count this one right alongside Sunsoft’s Batman in the elite class of licensed NES games worth a damn.

I always enjoyed Willow as a film. It wasn’t until years later that I picked up on the fact that it wasn’t exactly a critical darling at the time of its release. The screenplay was nominated for a Golden Raspberry Award (a mock prize awarded to “the worst in film”) and it was even compared to the infamous Lucas-produced stinker Howard the Duck. Freaking Howard the Duck? Really? That’s just low, man. In reality, it’s a very fun ride featuring likable leads (Warwick Davis is the man), stellar production, thrilling action sequences, and groundbreaking special effects. It also had those goddamn brownies. Those two were just wretched. Still, it’s far from the worst thing going. Oh, well.

The first thing you need to do to enjoy Willow the NES game is forget about all that stuff I just said, because it has basically nothing in common with the movie. Oh, all the main characters are here and your overall goal is still to overthrow the wicked Queen Bavmorda, but the plot as a whole is completely new. It’s actually a little surreal if you’re familiar with the source material to see all these elements remixed with such reckless abandon. I’ve seen some speculation that Capcom simply took the Willow license and slapped it onto another, unrelated fantasy game that they were already planning or working on. I haven’t seen any concrete confirmation of this, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit. At least they did make the effort of recreating a couple key scenes from the film, such as Willow’s multiple failed attempts to transform the sorceress Fin Raziel back into a human from animal form and the bit where Madmartigan is accidentally dosed with a love potion and falls for the villainous Sorsha.

If you’ve played any overhead action-RPG game before, you’ll be able to hit the ground running here. You move Willow around in eight directions with the directional pad, swing your sword with the B button, and activate whatever magic spell you currently have selected with the A button. You also have a shield which works passively to block frontal attacks as long as you’re not in the middle of swinging your sword. You’ll also find a host of other items that you need to progress the plot, but these work automatically from your inventory and don’t need to be manually selected or equipped. Starting out in your home village of Nelwyn, you’re given your first sword and spell along with some basic advice and instructed to head north to the next town.

Willow is not a particularly complex game. In fact, I already pretty much covered everything you need to know above. The forests, mountains, and caves of the world have some twisty maze-like sections that might take some wandering to find your way through, but the progression as a whole is very linear, lacking the open world exploration, puzzle solving, and secret finding elements of Zelda. Being told by one NPC that you need to go speak to another in order to get the item you need to move on is about as deep as it goes.

You’ll discover new swords and shields to equip along the way. With the exception of one sword that has the special power of being able to harm ghost enemies, though, the only thing that’s different about these is that some have better attack and defense ratings than others. The game does make an interesting attempt at an encumbrance system with its weapons, as each sword has a minimum strength rating needed to use it properly and Willow will attack very slowly if he uses a sword that he’s too weak for. What this really amounts to is that each sword has minimum character level associated with it. If your new weapon is too slow, just put it away until you gain a level or two and then try it again. I don’t know that this adds any actual fun to the proceedings, but it is different at least.

The magic system is pretty well handled. You have the usual handful of utility spells for things like healing, exiting dungeons instantly, and “fast travelling” between towns you’ve previously visited as well as attack spells that will freeze, damage, or even destroy enemies outright. There’s also a couple oddball spells in the mix, including one that transforms Willow into a slime monster for disguise purposes and another that will change strong enemies into weaker ones. Since most enemies can be dispatched by Willow’s sword fairly easily, I found myself saving most of my magic points for healing and travel. It is nice to have options, though.

Willow shows off some very impressive graphics and music. The color palette makes fine use of greens and earth tones without becoming too dark or muddy, sprites for Willow and his foes have a lot of detail, and there’s even a pretty fabulous effect when fighting enemies outdoors where every tile of the map will “come alive” and start to animate as if everything is blowing around in a windstorm. Very unique. Another visual highlight are the well-drawn facial portraits displayed for every speaking character in the game. Songs loop a lot and more of them would have been nice, but the ones we get are all composed and executed very well, as you would expect from Capcom. The theme from the final dungeon, Nockmaar Castle, is particularly awesome.

In terms of criticism, I do wish that Willow had just a little more going on in it. There are no real branching paths, secrets to discover, or puzzles to unravel during your quest. It’s just a linear trek from point A to point Z. It’s a fun enough trek, but it could have been so much more. There’s also a lot of repetition in terms of scenery, almost as if the developers tried to pad out the game some by just sort of “stretching” the game world as a whole. You’ll see a lot of identical screens copied and pasted over and over. There are even occasional instances of the exact same empty screens placed right next to each other. There’s no proper justification for something like that.

While Willow might not have depth on its side, it does have accessibility and personality to spare. The mechanics here are very solid and there are no glaring gameplay flaws to speak of. It’s a worthy entry in the genre and very much worth playing for action-RPG fans, even if it does play third fiddle to Zelda and Crystalis on the NES. Best of all, you can’t actually hear the brownies talk this time.

Terranigma (Super Nintendo)

*sniff*

I haven’t played an RPG in quite a long time and I’m glad I chose this one to ease back into the genre. One of the things I like most about the majority of 8 and 16-bit console games is that I can usually complete them fairly quickly and then move on to something else before things get too stale. This is not so much the case with a lot of traditional RPG titles that emphasize constant slow-paced menu-driven battles. Thankfully, 1995’s Terranigma is a breezy action RPG that only took me about 19 hours to complete at a fairly leisurely pace. The combat is stimulating and the game doesn’t spread itself too thin or take up fifty hours of your life just because it can. I really appreciate that.

Also known as Tenchi Sōzō (“The Creation of Heaven and Earth”) in Japan, Terranigma is the third game in a loose trilogy of Super Nintendo action RPGs from developer Quintet that also includes 1992’s Soul Blazer and 1994’s Illusion of Gaia. The three games don’t share any specific characters or plot elements but they do all include many of the same gameplay elements and narrative themes.

Terranigma had the misfortune to release just as publisher Enix was closing down its North American operations, which makes it one of the relatively few Super Nintendo games to see official release in Japan, Europe, and Australia but not over here. It’s a damn shame because this game is a triumph and deserves more than the dubious honor (along with Seiken Densetsu 3) of being remembered as one of the North American SNES’s fabled “lost” RPGs. Thankfully, it’s easy these days to track down a ROM file (or a reproduction cartridge, if you’re an unrepentant physical media snob like me) and experience this gem for yourself.

In Terranigma, you play as a mischievous teenage boy named Ark (although you can change his default name to whatever you like) who lives in the peaceful village of Crysta, along with his adorable purple-haired love interest Elle. Life is pretty peaceful until one fateful day when Ark breaks his way into a forbidden room in the village elder’s house and discovers a literal Pandora’s Box that he (of course) promptly opens. This causes everyone in the village to be frozen in place by a magic spell of some kind except for the elder, who tells Ark that he must leave the village to seek out five mysterious towers and conquer their various challenges in order to restore the cursed villagers to life. Things escalate quickly as Ark soon discovers the shocking truth that the subterranean Crysta appears to be the last surviving human settlement following some sort of cataclysm that laid waste to the surface of the planet. Each of the five eldritch towers he visits causes one of the planet’s sunken continents to be restored to its former place. These revived continents turn out to be very familiar indeed: Eurasia, North America, South America, Africa, and Australia! Ark soon finds himself in the surface world, where he must serve as the catalyst for the resurrection of life and human civilization as he journeys far and wide across this devastated Earth.

Right away it’s clear that you can’t accuse Terranigma of having a rehashed stock JRPG plot. There’s no evil empire to fight and there isn’t even anything resembling a true villain on the scene until well past hour twelve. Ark’s quest is a slow burn driven by the player’s own desire to piece together the enigmatic plot and is really more about the journey and the plethora of memorable people and places you’ll encounter along the way than the purposefully nebulous destination. It’s very similar to Dragon Quest VII in that sense, although it thankfully avoids that game’s glacial pace and extensive backtracking. Ark is also not the standard “silent protagonist” that you’ll find in RPGs from this era and his wisecracking, devil-may-care attitude adds a lot to the game’s charm. As a whole, Terranigma’s story is completely delightful and I won’t be spoiling it here. If you’re in the mood for a complex, unorthodox narrative laden with challenging themes and a blend of sparkling humor and touching warmth, Terranigma is for you.

The gameplay also doesn’t disappoint, as this game features some of the most nuanced and well thought out combat mechanics seen in an action RPG of its generation. Ark can walk and run in eight directions, unleash five different attacks with his weapon (a spear), and, most crucially, jump. The variety of distinct attacks available is uncommon enough but the ability to jump is what really sets Terranigma’s combat apart from that seen in other action RPGs like Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Secret of Mana, and even Quintet’s own earlier efforts like Illusion of Gaia. You’ll also unlock additional movement options like swimming and cliff scaling through the acquisition of key items during gameplay but these are mainly useful for exploration and don’t impact the combat. Overall, fighting enemies in Terranigma feels faster, richer, and generally more fun than it does in most other games of its kind.

Being an RPG, there’s also the requisite magic system but I can’t say I cared all that much for it. Terranigma’s magic is effective, no doubt, and the various spell animations look and sound awesome. The main issue I had is that you simply don’t need any of it! The game’s difficulty is such that just beating down everything in your way with your weapons is both quicker and more enjoyable. Here’s a basic rundown: You find crystals called “magirocks” scattered throughout the game world. They work sort of like bottles for holding the spells of your choice until you decide to use them. You need to go to a magic shop, pay money to have them filled with magic, and then bring them back for recharging as they’re used. See the issue here? You can either trek back to the magic store over and over to spend money refilling your magirocks or you can just…not, since beating on the bad guys is more efficient and more exciting. Ultimately, I can forgive Terranigma for this rather lackluster system, however. Balancing the magic system in an action RPG seems to be one of the trickier aspects of the design process. Look no further than Square’s Secret of Mana, where the most effective combat strategy involves repeatedly pausing the game to select attack magic from the menu over and over again until whatever you’re fighting explodes. Not exactly the pinnacle of great action. It’s far better for the magic in a game like this to be unnecessary than overpowering.

Terranigma’s final distinctive gameplay element is a bit of a distant callback to Quintet’s own ActRaiser: Town building. Doing sidequests for villagers will actually alter the game world by facilitating technological advancement and international trade. Villages can become towns and towns cities. It’s a fairly minor aspect of the game in that it won’t alter the main storyline or ending but it’s a lot of fun to see the results of your actions and choices take such a tangible form on the world map.

When it comes to presentation, Terranigma is practically unrivalled on the system. Sprites are larger and animations are smoother than they were in most earlier action RPGs, the backgrounds are lushly detailed, and the cinematic cut scenes accompanying the gradual resurrection of the world are easily some of the most elaborate and beautiful ever conceived up to that time. The breathtaking score belongs in the pantheon of all-time 16-bit greats like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. It really is that good. The music has that chunky synth orchestra sound that SNES RPGs are famous for and the compositions are soulful and inspired.

There are a couple flaws worth mentioning. As I alluded to earlier, Terranigma is a pretty easy game. That might sound like a plus for some players but I really do think the enemies could have been made just a bit tougher, as it would have bolstered the game’s underwhelming magic system by rendering it a tad more useful. I also got the impression that the game’s best levels were concentrated in its first half, with later dungeons feeling markedly less detailed and innovative.

This is really minor stuff, though. Terranigma is a resounding masterpiece and a must play title. Quintet’s games always had great artwork and music paired with rock solid gameplay but that’s not why I think they’re remembered. No, I think it’s because Quintet was never afraid to introduce big ideas into their games in small ways. Death, rebirth, religion, the nature of good and evil, the paradoxical fragility and resilience of life, the dangers of pride and greed: Quintet didn’t just lecture us about these things, they actually showed us different aspects of them through meetings with unforgettable characters and then left us to draw our own conclusions. They didn’t hold back but they still somehow managed to do it with restraint. They gave their audience credit at a time when games were considered child’s play.

Nothing illustrates this better that Terranigma’s absolutely heartrending ending. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it here but I will say that it’s the most pitch-perfect bittersweet coda I’ve ever experienced in a game. I actually shed a tear or two and no game has ever made me do that before in my 3.5 decades of play. It’s easily my favorite game ending ever.

This is why Quintet’s body of work will never be forgotten.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES)

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“Your head is, like, freaking gigantic, though. You should probably see a doctor. Still, good job with the whole hero thing.”

What a wonderful time it’s been re-playing Zelda II: The Adventure of Link! I’ve been playing a ton of NES in the past six months or so but I’ve mostly focusing on titles that are new to me, and while I haven’t played all the way through Zelda II in a few decades, it’s amazing how familiar it still feels. I wish I could be half this good at remembering other things like names, faces, people in general….

Anyway, Zelda II has developed a reputation for being a highly polarizing game that people either love or hate. This is weird to me because back when it came out, I recall encountering exactly zero players who claimed it was a “bad game” or not a “real Zelda game.” The game was just awesome and that was that. I suppose it might be because safe, iterative franchise culture was much less of a hunched gargoyle squatting on the games industry at that point. In fact, I’d wager that even trying to toss out the word franchise in conjunction with video games in 1987 would have drawn uncomprehending stares. Fewer games, even successful ones, got sequels at all and there were fewer preconceptions about what a sequel had to do. It was a new frontier and we were more open to novelty. Certainly, there were no “fandoms” yet. Ick. The original Zelda game has awesome overhead view action? Cool! Zelda II has side view action? Cool!

So yes, Zelda II ruled in 1987 and it still rules thirty years later.

In Zelda II, Link must track down the Triforce of Courage to awaken Zelda from a sleeping spell. He also has to avoid the literally bloodthirsty minions of the deceased Ganon who want to use him as a sacrifice to resurrect their vanquished leader. Link’s quest involves traversing the land and completing seven dungeons, each with its own boss. Along the way, Link visits several towns where he learns magic spells and new sword techniques to help out in the dungeons, usually by completing a short fetch quest for the townsfolk. The structure of the game as a whole is definitely a lot more linear than the first Legend of Zelda, which might be a sticking point for some. Exploration isn’t much of a priority here but combing the overworld won’t go completely unrewarded, either, since there are still health and magic upgrades scattered around to find.

I already mentioned that the action is presented in a side view format this time, with Link gaining the ability to crouch and jump. What I didn’t mention is that this feels amazing! Link’s movement and attack controls are buttery smooth here and are just so awesome to master. I genuinely feel that the combat in this game is one of the greatest pure play control experiences available in the NES library and the addictive feel of the swordplay is this game’s greatest strength by far. It’s definitely what keeps me coming back.

Another plus is the game’s score, which is phenomenal from title screen to end credits. I dare say it’s even better than than the original game’s! It’s a bit of a pity for me that these themes have been so neglected over the years while other games in the series have seen more musical callbacks in later installments. These are badass sword and sorcery adventure tunes at their finest.

There are light RPG elements in Zelda II but they don’t ultimately do much to help or hinder the game for me. They’re just sort of there. Kill enough enemies and the game will prompt you to increase your attack strength, magic power, or health. It happens at a natural enough pace that you shouldn’t need to invest a lot of time just grinding levels, unless you want to try to offset the difficulty a little.

Which brings me to the other major gripe people have with the game other than the perspective shift: It’s more difficult to complete than other Zelda games. This is true to a degree. The game never approaches a truly extreme level of difficulty but it does require a lot of practice and focus. Tougher enemies like the shield-toting Iron Knuckles and the axe-wielding Daira are tough, aggressive, and can deal a lot of damage unless you memorize and exploit their patterns. Link can also fall or be knocked into pits, which will instantly deplete one of his lives. That’s right: Lives. You start with three. Lose them all and you’ll continue back at the first screen of the game. Items collected, levels gained, and other progress is retained but you lose all experience points accumulated toward your next level. If you die in a dungeon, you’ll need to trek back to the entrance to try again and non-boss enemies will have respawned. It’s not the most punishing system in the world but it can be annoying to progress far into a dungeon only to perish and have to retrace your steps and re-kill everyone. If you’re patient and willing to work on learning your enemies’ weaknesses, though, the game is very much beatable in a reasonable amount of time.

So again I implore you: Don’t believe the negative buzz you’ll find online about this game. If you do, you’ll be missing out on one of the most stimulating and well-polished action-adventure experiences the NES has to offer, and that would be…an Error.

Get it? Like the guy in the game who’s named Error? Eh?

I’ll show myself out.

(Originally written 5/28/2017)

Faxanadu (NES)

Whelp, saved the world. Time to strut off into the sunset like a boss, apparently.

I found Faxanadu to be great in some ways, but overall very uneven. You play as an unnamed Elf adventurer who returns to his home town at the base of the giant World Tree to discover that an ominous meteorite has poisoned the water and twisted the Elves’ neighbors, the Dwarves, into murderous mutants. Of course, only you can sort this mess out.

Right off, I have to say that this game looks and sounds fantastic. The art and music combine to give the game a very effective dark fantasy feel. Enemies look twisted and foul and the various areas inside the blighted World Tree appear run down and eerie. The mist level in particular looks fantastic, with lurid purple-grey fog obscuring everything while an off-kilter, disturbing tune plays. For an NES game, the atmosphere is sublime.

The gameplay could have used more fine-tuning, though. Enemy placement is problematic throughout, with some unavoidable hits when enemies literally spawn in on top of you as you switch screens as well as enemies that love to camp directly at the top or bottom of ladders that you need to navigate, resulting in more forced damage. There’s also the matter of the pendant that you’re tasked with locating in the Tower of Suffer dungeon. Despite what the NPCs and the manual say, this item appears to be bugged and noticeably decreases your offensive power instead of increasing it, and there’s no way to be rid of it once you pick it up! If I’d been playing with a walkthrough, I’d have known that I should have skipped it but as it was I had to go back and re-input an old password, losing quite a bit of progress. Do yourselves a favor and skip the Tower of Suffer completely.

These frustrations weren’t enough to ruin the game for me, although the pendant debacle came close. Faxanadu is still a very fun action RPG with awesome levels, enemies, and music. It’s very short and mostly linear, so don’t expect a lot of tricky puzzles, branching paths, or backtracking, just a good, weird time. Go climb a tree!

(Originally written 4/29/2017)

The Battle of Olympus (NES)

Talk about going to hell and back….

The Battle of Olympus is an action-adventure game published by small Japanese developer Infinity in 1988. Subtitled “The Legend of Love” on its intial release in Japan, the game was a true labor of love. In fact, everything except its musical score was created by just two people: Then newlyweds Yukio Horimoto and Reiko Oshida. There definitely aren’t many games with this sort of development history behind them.

The game’s premise is essentially a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Euridice, except that instead of traveling to the underworld to plead for his deceased lover’s life, Orpheus instead picks up his trusty wooden club and heads there to beat the immortal piss out of Hades himself until he cries uncle. Because video games make mythology way better. Along the way he also encounters a mixture of creatures and elements from nearly every other famous Greek myth: Hydras, minotaurs, cyclopes, the witch Circe, the pegasus, golden apples, winged sandals, the works.

The first thing people notice is that the game plays a lot like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, except lacking the overhead sections and presented completely in a side-scrolling view. This is no coincidence, as the developers have admitted to being big fans. If you like Zelda II’s combat, you’ll probably enjoy Battle of Olympus’, although it can be a bit more difficult. Enemies are tougher to hit due to Orpheus being unable to stab up or down like Link learns to do in Zelda II and there seems to be more pits to worry about getting knocked into. A nice change from Zelda II is with the various other characters you’ll encounter, since all of them either say or do something useful. There are no pointless “Hello” or “I know nothing” NPCs here.

The game’s graphics are very beautiful for the system at the time and I love the colors used. There are a lot of bright pastel shades of pink, purple, blue and green. Some areas like the caves and forests are more subdued, but for the most part it really pops. The characters are large and well-drawn, generally quite recognizable for what they represent. I liked the score a lot, too, although it doesn’t have the same epic polish as Zelda II’s.

If I have one major qualm with the game, it’s the currency grinding. When you encountered a character in Zelda II that had an item or spell for you, they usually just gave it to you outright and there was no need for a money system at all. In The Battle of Olympus, they usually want a certain amount of red gems dropped by enemies (bizarrely referred to as “olives” in-game) before they’ll fork over whatever you need to proceed. So expect to find yourself grinding out lots and lots of weak enemy kills until you amass the 50-80 olives that each character demands. It’s pure padding at its worst.

Despite the grind, The Battle of Olympus is a compelling and memorable adventure with a fascinating and romantic story behind its creation. It flew under the radar at the time of its release and continues to do so 29 years later but it’s the perfect example of a hidden gem. Or maybe a hidden olive?

(Originally written 4/16/2017)